Oldies But Goldies: More About rock writing From 2009
English journalist Julie Burchill once said to me that rock critics were frustrated rock stars with a lot of unused homosexual heroworship. My experience tells me that rock critics are frustrated writers. If you want a career in media rock criticism is the place to start -it is even more inclusive than UK Punk -almost literally any one can do it and in the age of blogging nearly literally everybody can.
In the late 60s mags like Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy were gagging for good writers -nobody knew what they were talking about when they talked abour rock and they can’t a handful of great writers: Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, Lester bangs, a coupla of others. These were for the most part over-educated wiseguys with a passion for music and (certainly in Bangs case) a passion for writing.
Also, with the Vietnam War and a civil war at home, the rock critics were members of the royal opposition.
Bangs ended up at Creem and Christgau at the Village Voice for the first golden age of rock criticism. Creem was stuck railing at the mid-70s stench of laid back LA and Led Zep inspired heavy metal and answering by reviweing garage rock, underground rock and reviling the usual villains.
Then punk happened.
Meanwhile, England had three weekly music papers and the need to feed the beast was overwhelming with new bands blown all out of proportions before being put back into their place. In the early 70s Allan Jones “Melody Maker” was the place to be but at “New Musical Express” Editor Nick Logan was bored with the same old and put an ad asking for young guns. He got Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons just in time for punk.
Punk left much of US rock criticism a little flat footed -certainly it was Rolling Stone’s weakest moment as a musical movement. Creem meanwhile had become a sarcastic middle America scream with Dave DiMartino and Bill Holdship writing extremely clever and charming full frontal assaults on the music establishment.
In the 90s, “Vibe” magazine brought a serious look at hip hop and AP came out of grunge. “Spin” held the hip flag under Bob Guccioni Jn. And “Q” was thorough about current rock while “Mojo” was thorough about old rock.
The main difference to day is web based sites like “Pitchfork” and millions of blogs like this one.
But what we aren’t discussing is how brilliant the best of these writers can be. I was reading “Lost In Sound” the other day and I was so impressed at the emotions of the writing: there is a deep love for the music and also, and here is where rock criticsm lives, a burning desire for you to agree with them. Blog writing is advocacy writer. A blog like Nerd Litter is fanzinely but with a deeper connection between the writer and the audience and the artist: since you can add film and add sound, you don’t just state your point of view, you play your point of view.
For me, writing about music began with punk and New Musical Express: a great writer (albeit not a great music writer) like Julie Burchill made you feel like a fool not to agree with you and as the middle class in England tried to come to terms with punk as a music and a movement we needed a conduit between the lower class and ourselves. A comparison might be what Hannah Arendt did for Heidegger: not a dumbing down but an opening up. Tony Parsons was plainly hysterical, in a world where the gifted but influenced Nick Kent was the standard bearer, Parsons was a tough street kid with a flickknife and an attitude and he was there to insult Bryan Ferry and have Mick Jagger fake a cockney accent during the entire interview.
These were favorite writers, heroes if you will, of mine: Mick Farren and Charles-Shaar Murray, Ian Parsons, Paul Morley: old timers or newly acquired from punk fanzines like “Sniffin’ Glue” With endless pages to fill (in that sense like blogging) and a constant deadline crunch, these cats were Dr. Feelgood with a typewriter.
I found it ridiculously easy to become a rock critic. I wandered into “East Village Eye” and told Leonard Abrams I was a rock critic. He stuck me at a typewriter and told me to give him 500 words on something then went off to buy some chicken wings. I wrote a review and he published it. I took the published review and got an assignment from Robert Chrisgau at the Village Voice, took em both to Dave Dimartino at Creem and that was that.
I mention this because two of my favorite writers were also my editor at certain times. If you don’t know Christgau’s work you should. Christgau’s taste dovetails nicely with mine whereas poet laureate Lester bangs taste isn’t wide enough for me: Bangs was too morally stodgy, he didn’t seem to care for the mainstream while I believe popular music IS ABOUT the mainstream. Whether you like it or not a new Whitney Houston album is more exciting than a new DC Sniper (not necessary better but more of a cultural bellweather, reaching a more diverse and much, much larger audience) but I have no doubt Bangs would’ve preferred DC Snipers. Christgau gets both of them.
Incidentally, I didn’t know who he or VV were when I started writing for him. But found out in time and one of my favorite books of any sort is Christgau’s Consumer Guide to the 70s. In 200 word gulps he nails album after album, his review of Lennon’s “John Lenoon/Plastic Ono” band is the single greatest work of criticism I have ever read and I am going to reprint it here so you can judge: ” Of course the lyrics are often crude psychotherapeutic cliches. That’s just the point, because they’re also true, and John wants to make clear that right now truth is far more important than subtlety, taste, art, or anything else. At first the music sounds crude, too, stark and even perfunctory after the Beatles’ free harmonies and double guitars. But the real music of the album inheres in the way John’s greatest vocal performance, a complete tour of rock timbre from scream to whine, is modulated electronically–echoed, filtered, double-tracked, with two vocals sometimes emanating in a synthesis from between the speakers and sometimes dialectically separated. Which means that John is such a media artist that even when he’s fervently shedding personas and eschewing metaphor he knows, perhaps instinctively, that he communicates most effectively through technological masks and prisms. A”
This is heady stuff and the most consistent piece of reviewing I’ve ever read is Christgau’s guide reviews of the Rolling Stones: read chronologically it is a succint and brilliant history of rock.
DiMartino’s taste in rock gives the term esoteric whole new vistas of meaning. He can write books about people I have never heard of and probably wouldn’t get if he did BUT (and this is true of all this crowd: Holdship, Kordosh, the late lamented Rick Johnson) he writes with a clarity and humor that is lightness personified -younger readers loved these guys because they cared but their caring never got in the way of their snotty irreverance. Dave’s interview with Joni Mitchell is the greatest interview ever written by any one this side of Nick Kent on Brian Wilson.
But this is just the tip of the barrel: so many words are out there. This stuff can be like a holy grail of language: Greil Marcus’ “Mystery Train,” Lester Bangs on Astral Weeks, Holdship on the Replacements, Parsons on the Buzzcocks, and always Christgau. I have obsorbed so much of his writings over the years I don’t even know when I’m stealing a phrase: I know this
, when something goes wrong I’ll say “I am going to roll up my penis and go home,” Christgau’s advise to Jagger after Christgau had listened to Princes’ “Dirty Mind”. And I I know this, if I am fighting with a girl I’ll claim she is using “All wordplay as swordplay” from a Christgau review of Elvis Costello.
And I know this: I write because I like writing (I’ve spent the past twenty-three years writing mostly fiction) and rock critics are not rock stars, sometimes we’re friendly with rock stars but most often not at all (and often I at least was disliked) but what we are are bringers of the sound, we’re offering you something important and hopefully we are doing it with language that will excite you the way music excites us.
Of course, all rock bands start as a form of rock criticism: rock bands start by playing their favorite songs to an audience who are introduced to a new music. When Titus Andronicus covers Spider Bag it is music criticism, if you listen to the two versions of “Waking Up Drunk” side by side Titus illuminates Spider and Spider clarifies Titus.
When Elvis Costello said writing about music is like tapdancing about architecture he was eye in the needleing (especially in the age of mp3s and blogs) but he might be right to a degree because all art is transmogrification from one medium to another and rock writing is transmogrification from feelings to music to the written word: it seems to move in concentric circles into oblivion which is where it ends up.